For readers unfamiliar with Nordson TEST & INSPECTION, can you briefly describe it? How does this division fit into the Nordson company?
As you know, Nordson is a global company involved in many different industries from medical to electronics, materials and more. We are leaders in many industries including our ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS, which includessubgroups such as Nordson ELECTRONICS SOLUTIONS, which is what we consider our “Build-in-Quality” segment, and TEST & INSPECTION (T&I), which we consider our “Verify Quality” segment. Within the T&I group we offer ACCOUSTIC products, OPTICAL products, Bond testing and Materialproducts, X-ray detectors and sources and, of course, the Assure X-ray component counting systems which we are discussing today.
We understand that you work primarily with the Nordson Assure products. What is this division’s role under the TEST & INSPECTION umbrella?
How has Nordson Assure continued to stay successful and differentiate itself from its competition, especially in today’s fast-paced industry?
The first thing people should know is we were the first to produce this type of equipment for this application. We were originally optical control, and we began developing this machine in 2011 in Germany. As you know, we were acquired by Nordson in 2019 because we fit perfectly into their product lineup but, more importantly, our focus on quality and support fit theirs.
I believe we differentiate from others for several reasons but one of our big advantages is the fact that we built this productwithin our own EMS factory, for our own needs, where we had four SMT lines. Maybe you are thinking “why that isimportant”? There are many reasons:
1. We struggled with the same pain points all other EMS companies struggle with, i.e., line stoppage because there were fewer components on a reel than expected. As everyone knows, line stoppage is very expensive, frustrating, and often unnecessary. In fact, that is how this idea came about at optical control years ago. An engineer was being questioned about a line down and he said; “Well, if we had a better way to count components, maybe this wouldn’t continue happening.”That was the beginning of optical control, and in reality, the beginning of counting components with x-ray.
2. We built this machine from the ground up as a component counter and nothing else. We did not turn an existing machine into a counter. We made a deliberate design from the beginning and the only focus was “counting components”.
3. We had, and still have, a dedicated team that focuses 100% on component counting. We don’t try to be an all-in-one solution as we feel that distracts from what we are good at.We work with other companies that do what they do best, while we continue to do what we do best. A good example is component storage which I’m sure will be a part of this conversation.
5. Being part of Nordson gives the added benefit of a larger team and more support, which is comforting to our customers.
Why does component counting seem to be such a hot topic right now?
We’ve seen your Assure FLEX systems at several factories. Can you tell our readers a little about Assure FLEX Automation? What benefits does this technology provide users?
The Assure FLEX is very interesting. The “FLEX” name was decided because of its flexibility, which I’m guessing would be obvious. We don’t want to tell our potential customers, “This is what we can offer you for an inline solution. I hope you like it.” Instead, we designed a machine that can be built around the customers’ requirements. The FLEX machine can be purchased by itself and used by itself, or the customer can attach it to various conveyors, loaders, robots, etc. They canalso get a complete solution from us including loaders and unloaders, automatic label placement, and conveyors. In addition to handling devices, it can be physically connected to storage towers and for the most part, controlled by the tower.
An example of one of our FLEX configurations is quite interesting. We supplied our FLEX machine without any attachments. The customer did the entire integration by themselves with our support. At incoming, they use an incoming material station to match the part numbers to a BOM and apply a new unique identifier for that reel. The reel is placed on a conveyor and transferred to the first Assure FLEX to verify the count matches the PO. From that point the reel travels throughout the factory on a conveyor directly to a storage tower with humidity control, and it stays there until it is needed for a job. Once the reel is called on, it is automatically delivered via AGV directly to the line. When production is completed, the reel is moved via AGV to a second Assure FLEX directly connected to the storage tower, counted again and returned to inventory. In this case, other than at receiving, and putting the reel on the feeder directly in front of the pick and place machine, there is no handling of the reel.
As you mentioned previously about storage, it seems the topic of the day at many factories is automated counting and storage. They are always included in the same conversation. How do they complement each other?
I think the example just mentioned is a very good example of how they complement each other. But not all customers are ready for this type of automation and that does not matter to us. Even our stand-alone Assures can communicate with any storage system. They do not have to be automated. We have several “s/w only” connections to storage towers and rooms. We also connect to storage rack systems which are different than towers but have many benefits as well. In fact, many customers have both storage towers and storage racks. Each have their own benefits.
The reel is counted on the Assure, and it immediately updatesany type of storage system. Whether they walk the reel over, push it on a cart, or a conveyor, the communication is the same as a fully automated system. The way the complement each other is simple. We count the reel, and then it is kept safe in a storage system. By them knowing the count, they can be confident when they put the reel on a feeder, and we can be confident after we count it, it is kept safe, and our count remains accurate and reliable. Working together like this is how we keep SMT lines running.
Conversely, what challenges do you foresee for these industries? Will Nordson Assure be ready to meet them?
Nordson will always be ready to meet any challenges. We have a team focused on counting, and over-all inventory concepts. The process of inventory control in the past was not always looked at with the same urgency as the rest of production, but it all ties in together. The challenge is to utilizeall solutions to keep SMT lines running more efficiently. We feel this starts with inventory management. If there is no inventory, there is no SMT line. If the quantity is not reliable, it results in a line that can be down far too often.
In years past, it was considered wasteful for a person to manually count components all day and many factories still do not count at all. We have led the market by simplifying that process and that solves the first challenge. I think complete automation will continue to be in high demand and the challenge in the next few years. For sure, Nordson is ahead of the game. So, the short answer is “Yes, Nordson will be ready to meet them”.
How has COVID-19 affected Assure products?
I don’t think the Assure has been affected directly. In fact, demand has been very strong, sales have been great and the product keeps improving. I think COVID has slightly changed the way we do business but that’s about it.
With that said, what are the most significant ways that the pandemic has changed the way we do business today?
I think my answer will be like many others in our industry: “lots of online Web conferences”. I think we have all done more of them in the past 20 months than we have done previously in our career. It’s been good in some ways as we have realized we can accomplish a lot with online meetings. However, I feel face-to-face meetings are still most important and desired for most people but safety for ourselves, our families, and our customers is the priority.
If we can’t do a face-to-face meeting, and an online conference is not enough, a live video demonstration of our machines is great. The customers do not need to leave their factory but can be part of an actual demo via videoconferencing. We’ve done several live demos and let the customers direct the activity as if they were there. Many times, a box of reels is sent ahead of time so we can use their reels during the demo. This has always been available to our customers but because of the pandemic, we have been doing a lot more and I’ve come to believe this is a great way to show the machine.
What would you most like readers to know about Nordson Assure?
We were first to market with this type of product, and we are still the leaders. We have always had the same vision for this product and our design was deliberate from the beginning. It didn’t start as something else and then converted to a counter: it started 100% as a counter, and our focus is still 100% counting.
We are ready to meet all customer needs and requests. Mostcompanies realize how important this is and don’t want to rely on manual counting. They want a closed–loop system where we can communicate with other inventory management systems such as storage and an ERP. They want automation. The bottom line is they want to know their inventory and have the confidence their lines will not stop because of a missing component. And I must also say they want a machine that is intelligent, simple, fast, and trustworthy that anyone can use. It should not require an engineer to count components.
That is what we provide with the Assure.